The U.N.'s top human rights body urged Sri Lanka on Thursday to properly investigate alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the country's quarter-century conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels.
The U.N. Human Rights Council approved a U.S.-backed resolution urging the South Asian nation to probe allegations of summary executions, kidnappings and other abuses, but stopped short of calling for an international investigation.
Sri Lanka and its allies fiercely opposed the resolution, saying it unduly interfered in the country's domestic affairs and could hinder its reconciliation process.
But backers, such as the United States, the European Union and India, argued that credible probes into alleged crimes are an important step for justice and equality in post-conflict Sri Lanka.
A U.N. panel report has concluded there are credible allegations that both the government and the rebels committed serious abuses that could amount to war crimes, especially during the last months of the conflict when thousands of civilians were killed.
The Tigers, a cult-like group that fought to create an independent state for Tamils, were known to use suicide-bombers and child soldiers. On the government side, human rights groups say the army indiscriminately shelled areas where civilians had fled, denied them aid and carried out summary executions of captured Tigers.
Despite the bloody end to the war, the government victory was seen by many as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to rebuild its ethnic relations, which had been battered by decades of anti-Tamil discrimination long before the war began in 1983.
The head of Sri Lanka's delegation to the council, Cabinet Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, insisted before the vote that his country had been a "role model" for others in dealing with the aftermath of the conflict, which ended in 2009.
Samarasinghe called the resolution "misconceived, unwarranted and ill-timed," and directed much of his ire toward the United States, which had tabled the draft before the Geneva-based council.
"Those who live in glass houses are best advised to exercise caution before throwing stones," he said.
In Sri Lanka, protests continued against the resolution Thursday with politicians, disabled soldiers and families of fallen soldiers participating in them. Ruling party lawmakers protested in Parliament, denouncing the United States for presenting the resolution.
But human rights groups and ethnic Tamils in exile welcomed the vote.
"The Human Rights Council's vote demonstrates broad international dissatisfaction with Sri Lanka's accountability efforts in the three years since the end of the war," said Juliette De Rivero, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in Geneva.
De Rivero accused Sri Lanka's government of harassing Tamil activists in weeks leading up to the vote, accompanied by strident attacks on opposition figures.
Earlier this month, U.N. officials took the unprecedented step of admonishing Sri Lanka for taking close-up photographs of human rights activists and diplomats whose pictures were later circulated in pro-government media.
Tamil exile groups from Britain, Canada and the U.S. praised the resolution as a first step toward accountability, but noted that it fell short of imposing an outside international investigation. A last-minute amendment also gave Sri Lanka a veto over any future recommendations by the U.N. human rights office.
Diplomats say calls for an international inquiry may be revived if Sri Lanka's domestic investigation is found lacking by the council in future.
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka had the backing of China, Russia and Cuba, which is an influential player in the council. It also mobilized dozens of officials _ including seven government ministers _ to come to Geneva and lobby ahead of the vote.
In the end, the 47-nation council passed the resolution with 24 countries in favor, 15 against and eight abstentions.
U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, speaking to reporters outside the council chamber after the vote, said the U.S. hopes that Sri Lanka will now "investigate the serious allegations of civilian casualties from the civil war so that there is a real basis of reconciliation."
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva and Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.